Reefer Madness

You don’t come to Reefer Madness seeking literary merit or intellectual gravitas. The 1936 film is a notorious example of it’s-so-bad-it’s-funny filmmaking, and the 1998 stage musical is an intentionally campy parody of that film.
Yet, a look at its history shows Reefer is awash in as much irony as anything penned by Sophocles or Arthur Miller. Intended to warn America about the perils of the creeping menace of weed, the film wound up, some 35 years later, luring thousands of gleefully high potheads to festivals helping to promote a new group. Founder Keith Stroup rediscovered the forgotten film in 1971 and used it to generate attention for his then-embryonic National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
The musical, meanwhile, has helped bolster the fortunes of more than a few theater companies. It premiered at Los Angeles’ Hudson Theatre in 1998 and played to sold-out houses en route to sweeping all kinds of awards. (Its transfer to Off-Broadway wasn’t as fortunate: It had the shitty luck of debuting in New York City in October 2001, when live theater was an obviously tough sell.)
Three years ago, STAGEStheatre mounted the show to great audience reception, and based on the standing-room-only crowd last Saturday, there’s no reason to doubt the Maverick Theater’s ongoing production won’t be as successful.
Clearly, few shows generate buzz like Reefer Madness. For good reason. Though not as witty or as tuneful as Urinetown!, as clever as Avenue Q, or as socially relevant as a recently closed Los Angeles production of a rock opera about Linda Lovelace, Reefer Madness is a fine representative of the alternative, or underground, musical. It’s funny, gleefully schlocky, deliriously self-conscious and, amid the kitsch and camp, even tries to make the (half-hearted) point that the same zeal that fueled the hysteria to brand marijuana as Public Enemy No. 1 belongs to that particularly virulent strain of the American character that periodically results in internment camps, book burnings and the bombings of abortion clinics.
Directed by Curtis Jerome and graced by a five-person band, the Maverick’s production amply demonstrates why it’s so hard to not find something to enjoy in Reefer.
Jerome’s best move was casting three stalwarts of OC’s storefront-theater community in main roles. Mike Martin, as the play’s narrator and sinister co-conspirator, is flawless, serving as the play’s id, ego and super-ego, often in the same moment. Patty Cumby as the conscience-stricken Mae and Robert Dean Nuñez as the sordid pusher Jack Stone also shine.
Two relative newbies, Tyler McGraw and Emily Lopez, anchor the key roles of star-crossed lovers Jimmy Harper and Mary Lane. McGraw is a fiercely talented performer, and Lopez, though constrained by her character’s thin writing, finally gets a chance to showcase her considerable talent once Mary winds up ensnared by the vicious grasp of THC.
It’s a good thing the main roles (props also to Ryan Coon’s hauntingly funny portrayal of college-boy-gone-way-bad Ralph and Aleesha McNeff’s whacked-out Sally, who comes off as Alice Kramden on a speed-bender) are so well-cast because the very uneven ensemble and clumsy staging nearly harsh the play’s mellow. Several of the actors are overmatched by Jerome’s detailed choreography: Ubiquitous clusterfucks litter the stage; the technical glitches don’t help, either.
But those can all be fixed with more repetition. What is intact is the all-important esprit de corps. Sure, some of the cast looks hopelessly lost at times, but their hearts are in the right places (even when their limbs aren’t), and their energy and enthusiasm are infectious.
Still, as fun as this show is, you can’t help but wish that writers Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney would revisit their work. It’s an 11-year-old musical written and originally staged at a time when marijuana legalization was a literal pipe dream. Licensed medical-marijuana caregivers abound in the Sunshine State, and with California’s leading political man actually opening the door for a serious conversation about legalizing pot, the notion isn’t so farfetched any longer.
As currently written, Reefer Madness is an enjoyable satire of an unintentionally funny propaganda film, but just as the movie helped raise awareness for the reform of marijuana laws, it seems high time for the musical to do the same to help create a buzz around marijuana legalization.
Otherwise, it will remain what it is: a theatrical hit with all the substance of a Ding-Dong.

Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 p.m. Starts: June 12. Continues through Aug. 2, 2009

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